Briefly, my first impressions: the Chinese, at least here in Beijing, are a warm and friendly people, on the whole. Unlike some other countries in Asia, they don’t hesitate to smile at and talk with a foreigner, even if they realize he has no clue what they are saying. Perhaps it is because for so long it was closed off culturally from the rest of the world, but they are a curious people when it comes to foreigners – laowai. But it is a friendly, genuine curiosity.
And Beijing is an amazing, sprawling city. While there seems to be construction everywhere, and all the requisite problems that come with a large city anywhere in the world, East or West — smog, traffic jams, old tenement buildings and so forth — it is a very vibrant, bustling city with the East’s fascinating blend of old and new. It’s not uncommon to see trendily dressed teenagers walking around with cell phones glued to their ears, or professionally dressed men and women with briefcases in one hand sending text messages on their phones.
But in this country with a newly-rising middle class, “rising” is the key word. There are still many people of very modest means here, even in bustling Beijing. After my meeting with a start-up company this afternoon, my interpreter and I hired a pedicab driver who wheeled us around the outskirts of the Forbidden City and the surrounding hutong: narrow, charming neighborhood alleyways that are traditional residential architecture in this ancient city — neighborhoods that unfortunately are being swept aside in the name of modern progress.
Our driver was quite the chatterbox, pointing out historical buildings both ancient and relatively modern, such as the residence of the imperial court’s eunuchs of centuries past, as well as that of Deng Xiaoping and modern day Communist Party officials. He wryly noted that a large, sprawling house on the edge of a hutong that had barbed wire along its walls could only be the house of a party official, not a common Beijing resident, like most of those found in the interior of the crowded hutong.
Then our driver observed that unlike in China, in the U.S. anyone was free to amass wealth and power and buy a house like that, and that was what made my country great. I had to laugh at that: the Horatio Alger story of American myth is alive and well and living in Beijing.
I tried to point out that it wasn’t quite as simple as that, and it occurred to me that we have the exact opposite system in the West. In China, political power seemingly is what brings you wealth — at least according to our pedicab driver — whereas in the U.S. — according to me — wealth brings you political power. Anyone is free to run for political office, true, but you need money, or access to it, at least, in order to do it.
But, between the language barrier and my tourist rubber-necking, it really wasn’t the time or place for a comparison of the political and social ideologies of East and West.
But in any event, I would recommend that everyone visiting Beijing from abroad hire a pedicab. Be prepared to be cajoled for a little extra beyond the agreed upon price at the end of the trip, but if your driver deposits you at a great local restaurant like ours did, it is well worth it — and still cheap by American standards.
In fact, the bicycle is so ubiquitous here, it seems only natural to see it on the back of my pedicab — and it also illustrates the rising nature of the Chinese middle class in Beijing. As my student interpreter Che Zhike — Tony Che to us Westerners — observed, after asking me what I do in my free time: I ride my bicycles for enjoyment and exercise, whereas he rides a bicycle as his primary means of transportation — as it is for many, if not most residents of Beijing.
Wherever you go here, bicycles are omnipresent. And while I realize that it is an economic necessity for cyclists here, unlike myself and other avid cyclists back home in the States, it nevertheless endeared Beijing to me right away. Any place with so many people on bikes, and large bike and pedestrian lanes throughout the city, is OK in my book.
I just hope that as China’s economy grows and they deal more and more with problems like pollution and energy availability, that they don’t forsake their bicycles for cars. They would do well not to imitate our history in that regard, and to learn from what I would consider to be one of our mistakes. The U.S. is deeply dependent on the private automobile, and we’re paying for that dependence right now, in more ways than one.
Well, jet lag is fast catching up with me — so much for the short entry — but one more note on the food. Food and it’s consumption is very important to Chinese culture, as I’ve read, been told, and am now experiencing first hand. One phrase of greeting translates into English literally as “have you eaten?”
I’ve only scratched the surface, but so far the cuisine has been so, so good — after only two meals in China, my mouth waters at the prospect of another month here. Have I eaten, indeed.
Until next time,
Editor’s Note: As explained at length elsewhere on this site, this is a blog entry of mine that originally appeared on the now-defunct Electronic News’ website, which is long gone. While its former sister pub Electronic Design News (EDN) currently holds the copyright to all Electronic News copy (to the best of my knowledge), as far as I know, this blog content isn’t hosted anywhere else on the Internet, hence my reproduction here.